CLEARWATER — "The Original Hooters has had a remodel, but these are original hooters," the original Hooters Girl says, glancing southward with a conspiratorial chuckle. Lynne Austin, now a mother of four and a radio personality, looks a lot like she did in 1983 when she reigned over the first "delightfully tacky, yet unrefined" casual restaurant on Gulf to Bay Boulevard.
The same can't be said of the restaurant itself. When it reopens today after an 11-week renovation, regulars will find an expanded 7,000 square feet of space, new features that include an indoor/outdoor bar, a museum and merchandising area, a more expansive indoor bar, additional seating, a new exhibition kitchen and 35 flat-screen TVs.
As if anyone goes to Hooters to stare at something flat. The concept that now boasts more than 480 locations in 44 states and 27 countries, which spawned an airline, a hotel, an arena football team and a calendar that sells upwards of 400,000 copies annually, is based on one thing: sex appeal.
The renovation of its flagship store raises the question: Just how much does Hooters need to change to stay relevant? In the early '80s, it stood alone, but today the playing field of "breastaurants" has grown dense. As Americans grapple with just how much cleavage they want with their wings, will Hooters have to up the ante to stay top dog and perennial punch line to the likes of Leno and Letterman?
For Ed Droste, Hooters co-founder, Hooters' dominance in this market has more to do with consistency.
"Hooters didn't take off right away. People didn't get it. But the funny part of being an American icon is that we haven't shifted much, but America has. Over the years we became a visible concern about appropriateness, and that controversy probably helped us, although we never tried to push any of our detractors into a corner. You put tasteless sex out there, but you don't go over the line."
"The line" is something many Hooters employees and executives like to talk about. But where is it? And who's drawing it?
"A lot of the imitators go much more sexist, if you will," says Neil Kiefer, president and CEO of Hooters Management Corp. "We've stayed true to what we are."
It's not entirely accurate to say Hooters has stayed the same. From the light and airy newly renovated Clearwater location to the distinctly funky-modern outpost that opened in 2011 on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg, to the two-level, open-deck concept that will open on Clearwater Beach in May, there is no sacrosanct design prototype. The menu, once man-cave fare of wings and burgers, is now 15 percent seafood and 5 percent salads. And five years ago liquor was added to the longtime beer-and-wine lineup.
In fact, mutability seems essential in restaurant chains, especially those that court 60 million customers through their doors each year. What is immutable at Hooters is obvious.
At a time when notoriously stringent employer Disney has relaxed its rules about employee facial hair and such, Hooters remains resolute.
Hooters Girls wear white socks, white tennis shoes, suntan hose, orange Dolfin shorts, white bra, Hooters tank. No dirt, no snags, minimal jewelry and no visible tattoos.
"I'm kind of the traditionalist," Droste says. "We've dabbled with changes, we've tweaked the shorts a little to make them more comfortable. But the Hooters Girls are iconic for one reason; it's their wholesome surfer-girl-next-door look."
The shorts are tweaked, the specially made panty hose now have no feet (girls complained of foot tingling and pain), and Kiefer admits they even are taking another look at the no-visible-tattoo policy. Still, nearly 300,000 alumni have donned this rigorously policed uniform.
Austin, 50, wearing dark slacks and a black blouse at the Clearwater reopening preview, makes it clear that the outfit is just part of what makes a woman a Hooters Girl.
A regular presence on 1010 Sports AM, Austin is bubbly and gregarious, with a generous smile that seems common to most of the faces in the time-line wall in the Clearwater location's new museum. Warm, but not easy. Austin's wry self-awareness is echoed by lots of the Hooters Girls.
"We try to convey that, by the way," says the original Hooters Girl. "We get the joke."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.